“I idolized her. The soul, the passion, just the out and out audacity of the way her rhythmic and melody changes came was like nothing I’d heard before.”
Wikipedia describes Laura Nyro’s songwriting thusly: “Her style was a hybrid of Brill Building-style New York pop, jazz, rhythm and blues, show tunes, rock, and soul.” Her songs were covered by artists as diverse as the 5th Dimension, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Peter, Paul and Mary, Three Dog Night, Maynard Ferguson and Barbara Streisand. But who was she?
Born in New York City (Bronx) in 1947, Nyro’s (née Nigro) father was a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter. Her musical tastes were diverse ranging from jazz to blues to classical. As a teenager, she would sing (doo-wop, I hope) with groups of friends on street corners and in subways.
She made her way out to San Francisco in the mid-60’s, performing in coffeehouses. Through her father’s personal connections, she got a recording contract and released her first album More Than A New Discovery. To say it was an auspicious beginning would be an understatement. Eventually nominated into the Grammy Hall of Fame, it contains three songs that would become major hits for other artists – “And When I Die,” “Stoney End,” and “Wedding Bell Blues.”
You may well have heard Streisand’s really fine version of “Stoney End” but here is Nyro herself. Listen to this voice and production. It’s like Broadway mixed with a pop sensibility:
The 5th Dimension had a hit with “Wedding Bell Blues” but I like the girl group purity of Nyro’s version better (but these songs are so good they’re easily translatable by anybody who can sing):
It is not widely known, or at least not widely remembered that Nyro performed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. She did not make the documentary cut and a weird rumor spread that she left the stage in tears, booed by the crowd. Some footage was found later proving this story to be absolute bullshit as she played to a largely appreciative crowd. Elton John and Elvis Costello discuss this here on Elvis’ great but short-lived show, Spectacle.
Nyro later connected with David Geffen who became her manager. And here’s an odd-but-true story – she briefly considered becoming lead singer of Blood, Sweat &Tears when Al Kooper left. Instead, David Clayton-Thomas became lead singer and of course, they had a huge hit with “And When I Die.” Go figure.
In 1968, Nyro released Eli and the Thirteenth Confession which both Elton John and Todd Rundgren say had a direct influence on them. Paul Shaffer calls it his desert island record. Rundgren met her and she admitted that making the album was a drag and she felt rushed. He later tried to produce an album for her but it didn’t work out.
I assume the Eli here is he of the Bible but I am not really sure. Three Dog Night had a hit with this and I’ve always dug it:
Nyro and Geffen had had the foresight to establish a publishing company when they got together. In 1969 they sold it to CBS for $4.5 million ($31M in 2018 dollars) making both of them, shall we say, filthy rich. Nyro had been fighting all this time against the male-dominated music industry and outfoxed them all.
The 5th Dimension had several hits with her songs but I think my favorite (and probably the funkiest and least overproduced) is “Stoned Soul Picnic.” (My wife and I wound up seeing the 5th Dimension a few years ago, somewhat inadvertently. It was actually a hell of a show.)
In 1971, when she was 24, tired of being marketed as a celebrity – and doubtless comfy with that cushion of cash – Nyro retired from the music business. She was an item with Jackson Browne for a while, then got married, had a kid, later got divorced and made some level of comeback. But while her albums sold to her fans and she did some live performing, arguably her most celebrated work was contained in her first few albums.
Aficionados will tell you that her third album New York Tendaberry may be her best. I don’t know where he originally heard it, but Kanye West sampled her song “Save the Country” on a song he did called “The Glory.” Nyro did her song as a reaction to the 1968 assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
Lastly, I kinda dig 1970’s Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, at least as much for the fact that it includes members of the Rascals and the Muscle Shoals crew as much as anything else. The Muscle Shoals band? Wasn’t Duane Allman a player in that group pre-Allmans? Yes, he was. Here is “Beads of Sweat” with Duane playing some nice, tasty and (for him) restrained guitar. He and Nyro even do a little call-and-response at one point:
On April 8, 1997, Laura Nyro died at the age of 49 of ovarian cancer, same disease – and age – as her mother. She was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2010 and, by Bette Midler, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. (“She could make a trip to the grocery store,” said Midler,” feel like a night at the Casbah.” Her legacy lives on.
Sources: Wikipedia, various websites.